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Religion and Love in Russia

The opium of the people—The anti-religious campaign in Russia goes forward steadily, though its character has been much changed of late. As with the work of bringing the peasants into the collective farms, the government found that it had been going too fast and that the zeal of Communists in the villages had led them into undesirable excesses. The new principle is that no church is to be destroyed or put to other uses, unless a majority of the communicants desire it, whether this means leaving it open one year or ten. How far this policy is now being carried into practice it is impossible for me to say from my own knowledge.

When a church is closed, the question is considered whether it is an important historical monument; if so, it is left standing and perhaps turned into a museum. If it does not obtain this rating, it will be converted to secular uses or destroyed. It is difficult to put Russian churches to any other employment, since they are very badly lighted and the floor space is broken up into numerous small alcoves whose partition walls could not be cut away without endangering the whole structure. In at least one case, a former cathedral which was one of the most beautiful and costly in all Russia has been converted into an anti-religious museum, and parties of Russians, children or adults, are conducted through it all day long by earnest guides who point out the significance of the various exhibits, only rarely raising their eyes to the incredibly beautiful decorations overhead.

In its early stages the anti-religious campaign went in for denunciations of the priests, couched in the language of passionate abuse; but all this has now been changed. The exhibits in the special museums are devoted to proving, statistically and through exhaustive charts and diagrams, that the church was a tool of capitalism and of the Tsar. There are graphs showing the huge and increasing proportion of the national income which went into the pockets of the hierarchy; specimens of the pictures which were circulated among the illiterate and superstitious peasantry, pictures which subtly suggested that the Tsar was, like the Mikado of Japan, of superhuman origin; statements of the staggering private incomes enjoyed by the princes of the church, and the like.

Miraculous mummies.—The Russian church used to lay great stress on the "miraculous" mummification which supposedly took place when certain local, saintlike priests had died; after a long interval their bodies would be dug up and placed on display in the church, though usually so wrapped in vestments that only half a square inch of mummified cheek would be left for the inspection of the devout. How important these relics were in the religious scheme of things no American who thinks in terms of American conditions can possibly realize. The Communists have sought to offset them in two ways. First of all, they put on display some secular mummies of their own, exactly as well preserved as those of the church, with elaborate explanations that it is chalky soil which accomplishes this permutation, and that the devoutness of the deceased has nothing to do with it. (They occasionally show side by side, for instance, a mummified rat, an executed murderer, and a saint, all in the same condition.) Second, they have in the presence of many witnesses unwrapped the vestments from certain of the holy mummies and have revealed that, as might have been expected, since natural production was too slow and sparse for a country teeming with churches, many of these sacred objects consisted of an odd-lot of sheeps' bones assembled under a sheet in such a way as to resemble roughly the skeleton of a man. Just how much effect these museums, and the accompanying propaganda in print, in the movies and on the radio, are having it would be impossible to say; not even the Russians really know. It is probably the case, as it is the world over, that the museums are patronized chiefly by those who already agree with their argument, and that the devout do not go. 

It is the fashion for optimistic social philosophers to say that persecution of any cause devoutly held merely makes the flames burn the brighter, but this is not always or necessarily true. Sometimes a cause which is driven underground simply dies and rots there. It is extremely unfashionable to go to church in Russia now; priests are subjected to every sort of difficulty, being placed in the last category as regards distribution of food, etc., and deprived of civil rights. Church-controlled schools are of course absolutely forbidden, and any child who receives religious instruction must get it in the home and in a semi-surreptitious manner. His religious faith, if he has any, must withstand the shock of emphatic atheistic teaching in school, producing at least in the younger children a state of bewilderment well expressed by the little girl who said, "Well, it's this way: there is a God, but I don't believe in Him. "I should be amazed to learn that more than one-tenth of one percent of the Russian children come out of school any less wholeheartedly devoted to atheism than they are to Communism. This is at least one reason why the congregations in the churches are steadily dwindling. They have today hardly any communicants who are less than thirty years of age; even if the government should now pursue a laissez-faire policy toward them, it would he only a question of a few decades before they were starved out and disappeared.

Can they live without it?—The two stereotyped observations which people outside Russia make on this matter are, "No nation can live without a religion of some kind," and then, brightly, "But of course. Communism is a religion to them, isn't it?" The first of these is, I believe, historically inaccurate; and whether it has any validity today we shall presently see. The fight in Russia, of course, has thus far been mainly not against religion, but against an organized church which certainly was an old man of the sea on the peasants' backs. While any sort of mysticism would be regarded as out of order for a good Communist, there is thus far no particular objection to other Russians' going in for transcendentalism of any variety they like, provided they don't try to organize it. At the same time, I think no one will deny that, generally speaking, a high degree of education is the foe of orthodoxy, and to a lesser extent, of mysticism in general; the Russian scheme of things envisages a far greater degree of education, for absolutely everybody, than has ever been contemplated anywhere else. 

As for the notion that "Communism is a religion in Russia," as it is commonly interpreted this is plain nonsense. Communism is an obsession, if you like, a monomania, but it is not in any sense mystical. Religion lives on faith, but Communism lives on works and in the long run, if it does not provide these works it will have to go. Lenin is sometimes quoted as though he were the world's one great fount of wisdom; but nothing is clearer today than that general policies are changed, not in accordance with what he wrote, but in accordance with the facts, as they are gathered by individual Communists out on the firing line everywhere, reported back to the factory and village Soviets and passed up and up to where Stalin and his advisers sit in the Kremlin. After a new policy has been decided upon in the light of the facts, it is usually not ha rd to find somewhere in Lenin's writings a passage which either justifies the alteration or can be made to do so.

It can be changed.—If anyone observes that “you can't change human nature," the only intelligent answer is in capital letters, "YES, YOU CAN SO." Human nature is one of the most malleable things in the world. The history of morals, of marriage, of religion, shows us how easy it is to make mankind conform to practically any pattern, provided only that you catch it young enough—beginning, say, at .the age of two minutes. Those who observe that "Russia can't live without religion" usually mean that middle-aged Americans or Englishmen, brought up in, a religious atmosphere, wouldn't like to be forced to change over. But this truth has nothing to do with the question of young Russians suckled in atheism from the cradle. As for their future, the scientists would comment that the data yet available are not sufficient to make a judgment one way or the other. In thirty years, we shall perhaps know. For the present it can only be said that those who are growing up in Russia give no evidence of missing the formal, mystical religion which is denied them. In richness of personality, enthusiasm, ambition, energy, such Russian boys and girls of eighteen or twenty as I have had the opportunity to observe compared so favorably with the average college student of either sex at home that, as a good American, my impulse was to weep for my countrymen.

Gossip about morals.—One of the difficulties which hamper foreigners in understanding Russia is that we are prepared to believe almost anything, good or bad, about that amazing country. The Russian Communist movement has its "lunatic fringe," like every movement everywhere else; and when one of these wild men makes a statement about something which he thinks ought to be done we are all too likely to assume, first, that this is the policy of the government, and second, that intention is identical with accomplishment. Probably, there are few people with any pretension to intelligence who any longer believe the absurd stories about the "nationalization of women"; but there are doubtless many more who believe that the Russians are intent on destroying the home, as an institution, and have already made great strides that direction. But for every Communist theorist who argues that the home is a center of bad, bourgeois ideology, I think I can find at least another who maintains that it is a necessary and continuing institution—transmogrified, of course, by existing under a Communist State.

Certainly there is very little evidence that the home is being destroyed in Russia any more than or even as much as, it is in the United States. There is no Russian equivalent of those vast new hotels, for bachelors only, or for "bachelor girls” only, which have sprung up in recent years in New York. It is true that the U.S.S.R. is going in for nurseries and orphanages extensively, but this is chiefly because she has to. The crèches which are attached to the new apartment houses, and to some of the factories, are just like similar institutions in America; women leave their children while they, are at work, and come and reclaim them when they return home. T he community dining-rooms in the apartment houses differ little from the similar services in American apartment hotels; the Russian housewife may feed her family there or in her apartment as she likes. The chief difference from America lies in the fact that for workers the food served is extraordinarily inexpensive; a whole family can be fed, and well fed by the standards of the country, for a dollar a day.

These wild young Communists.—Wise people in Russia assure me that the situation in regard sexual morality is not very different from the United States, except that the Americans pretend to a standard which they do not observe, and the Russians are more honest about it. There has always been a certain amount of freedom in Russia, in Tsarist days as well as now. If anything, the tendency at present is toward greater strictness; the young Communists are essentially Puritans in their outlook, and frown upon excessive sex indulgence as they do upon excessive drinking or even the use of tobacco; these things are all taboo because they detract from the concentration of effort and energy toward building the socialist State.

There is no such thing as an illegitimate child in the U.S.S.R.; every baby has an equal standing with every other. Any two people who live together are regarded, both legally and otherwise, as being married, irrespective of whether they have gone around to the registry office and recorded the fact. If a woman gives birth to a child, and she is not living with the father, she tells the officials who he is and he is compelled to contribute his fair share toward its rearing. If she is of an enthusiastic temperament and there are several possible candidates for the honor, they are all summoned for a hearing, and the court (perhaps a little arbitrarily) selects the nominee, presumably choosing the one in the best financial position to give assistance.

As everyone now knows, both marriage and divorce are exceedingly easy and simple in Russia. In divorce, about all that the government asks is that both parties agree as to what they want—certainly an infinitely better attitude than the idiotic rule in New York State, for instance, where “collusion,” if known, becomes a fatal obstacle. When man and wife appear before the court, seeking a divorce, an attempt is usually made to reconcile them, and it is sometimes successful; but generally speaking, if they really want a divorce they get it. If there are children, the parents share the responsibility for their maintenance according to their respective means.

Birth control in Russia.—Many Americans must I’ve been puzzled by an apparent contradiction in Russia regarding the attitude of the State on contraception. We have been told that the government was not sympathetic toward birth control, though it countenances abortion. It is a fact that authorities do not consider that the optimum population is a stationary or declining one, at least for that country and at the present time. They will tell you that with Communism, Russia can easily maintain a far larger population than at present, and believing as they do that the capitalist powers of the West are planning to make war on them, they welcome the idea of plenty of future soldiers for the Red army. At the same time, they recognize the right of every woman to have no more children than she wishes. The real reason birth control is not more widely practiced in Russia is, of course, that the universal shortage of all sorts of goods embraces also contraceptive appliances.

At least in the cities and larger towns, abortion is performed free of charge at the hospitals for any woman who asks for it. I am told that medical officers try to persuade the applicant not to have the operation, particularly if she has never had a child, but that they readily yield if she is insistent. The mortality from such operations is so low as to be negligible, and that is saying a great deal in view of general Russian conditions and sanitary standards. Among the peasants abortion is little practiced; and since they are still 80 percent of the population, the birth rate is almost as high as it was in the days of the Tsar, though the death rate has fallen by many points.

The oldest profession.—Russia has not succeeded in abolishing prostitution; but it is safe to say that she has come nearer doing so than any other country in the world. One of the numerous great contrasts if you come from Berlin to Leningrad and Moscow is between the hordes of women, twenty to a block, soliciting every passer-by on Unter den Linden, and the entire absence of anything similar in the Russian cities. Foreign visitors to Moscow are always proudly shown the prophylactorium where prostitutes are "reformed." There these women receive the medical treatment which is usually necessary and are taught a trade, the commonest choice being textile-machine operating. When they are ready to leave, positions are found for them in industry and the directors of the prophylactorium keep an eye on them as long as is necessary. Some of them revert to their former occupation, but the records indicate that the percentage of those who do so is less than ten. While statistics on this subject are naturally unreliable, the Communists believe that they have already abolished perhaps 90 percent of professional prostitution. They argue that while there is, and perhaps always will be, a small proportion of nymphomaniacs, most prostitution is economic in its origin; and that when every young woman is taught a trade and given a job, the temptation is greatly reduced.

This sounds plausible; but there is another strong reason, not usually mentioned, for the reduction of prostitution in the cities of Russia at present. That is the housing shortage. The prostitute needs a room of her own, and such a thing is an almost undreamed of luxury for the average Russian. Even if she has one, as soon as her way of life becomes known to her neighbors in the same building, she is almost certain to be denounced to the authorities by someone who is feverishly eager to get possession of the space she occupies. To be turned out of your dwelling in Russia is a tragedy the extent of which an American can hardly grasp. The real test of the Communist philosophy in this general matter will come when the housing shortage is relieved.


Moscow to Hollywood. — The Russians are scornful of the American preoccupation with sex, as reflected in our movies, plays and popular fiction. To them sex is interesting, serious—and incidental. Their daily journals contain practically none of the sort of news which enables the New York tabloids to exist. The breathless, Oriental worship of sex which permeates the whole being of the average Hollywood film producer seems to them highly pathological, and rather fitting its possessor to be locked in an asylum than to purvey the intellectual and emotional food of half the nation. To the Russian film producer, editor or author, the Five Year Plan is approximately the equivalent of what sex is to his American opposite number. While I would not, as a good American, decry the importance of sex—some of my best friends have been male or female—you cannot be in Moscow very long without getting some of the Russian attitude about the relative importance of Hollywood aphrodisiacs and such a thing as pulling a mighty nation up by its bootstraps from unbelievable ignorance and poverty. To be sure, the Russians may become more American as they get richer ... they may, but I doubt that they will. In the meantime, here is the first dollar toward sending the editor ox Smutty Stories, Mr. Farbgargle of Red Hot Films, and all their brothers, to Moscow for an enforced sojourn of a month, for the good of their souls and, ultimately, our own. 


This article originally appeared in the December 23, 1931, issue of the magazine.